Guest Speakers: Jennie C. Stephens (GRI Director for Strategic Partnerships), Nia K. Evans (Boston Ujima Project), Jock Payten (Boston Ujima Project), and Alex Papali (Center for Economic Democracy)
Professor Rebecca Riccio from Northeastern University introduced the presentation by reminding attendees that the Myra Kraft Open Classroom is using Northeastern’s Social Impact Lab’s newly released Principles of Anti-Oppressive Community Engagement for University Educators and Researchers as an organizing principle. A large part of this is addressing “how the control of resources and the ability to set the agenda can translate into power imbalances between different stakeholders.” That said, she invited Jennie C. Stephens to speak about what a just economy could look like.
Jennie C. Stephens began her presentation by informing the audience that since the start of the pandemic, the top ten billionaires in the world have doubled their wealth. This systemic problem of inequal concentration of wealth and power gets at the root of our housing crisis, energy insecurity, food insecurity, transportation inequities, and other problems because it represents a lack of investment in important areas. In this talk, Dr. Stephens aimed to discuss “transformative approaches” that can actually have impact when disrupting these perpetual problems and processes. In particular, she asks the questions:
- How can universities disrupt, rather than perpetuate economic injustice?
- Should universities be making more different kinds of investments in local communities and the different communities in which they are engaged?
- How can we all collaborate and partner with each other in new and different ways?
In order to discuss these questions, Dr. Stephens introduced the panel speakers, who are all working to enhance economic justice in the Boston community. Two of these speakers are from the Boston Ujima Project, who have designated March as “Racial Capitalism Month,” acknowledging how the systemic forces of capitalism play a large part in perpetuating racial inequity.
Next, Nia Evans introduced the Boston Ujima Project, which is a black-led, cooperatively-run arts investment and finance ecosystem that highly values cooperation, participation, and sharing power in decision-making. In her work at Boston Ujima Project, it is clear that “systemic issues call for systemic address,” as opposed to conventional approaches that involve focusing on a singular issue within a larger systemic problem. Evans affirmed that an important starting place for universities, like Northeastern, is to recognize the power of spaces like large institutions, and recognize where you are within an institution and the influence that entails. The Boston Ujima Project has an Anchor Institution Strategy, in which they go into anchor institution spaces, such as large universities and/or faith institutions to stimulate two-way communication about challenging systemic issues. The Boston Ujima Project also co-founded a PILOT Action Group, “PILOT” referring to “Payment in Lieu of Taxes.” This agreement involves large tax-exempt institutions taking the funds that they would otherwise pay in taxes, and investing these funds in community benefits and cash to the city. Universities have not been great actors in this agreement. Finally, Evans reiterated that there is so much that universities can do, and spoke specifically about university involvement in providing reparations to address their deep historic involvement in slavery and racial injustice.
Next, Jock Payten, Managing Director of The Ujima Fund, reiterated that there is so much that anchor institutions can do to address economic injustice, such as relieving student debt that severely limits individuals’ economic participation. The Ujima Fund is democratic-led investment vehicle that includes the community at each step of the investment process, such as naming community standards. Businesses that meet the community standards can join the Good Business Alliance and become eligible for investment and Ujima Fund support. The Ujima Fund is unique because it empowers the community to vote on which businesses will receive investment, rather than it being an internal decision. Payten also spoke about the major role universities could play in encouraging students to diversify their career paths and get involved in community organizations, rather than following a rigid pipeline to corporate jobs.
Rebecco Riccio asked the question, “How do you operationalize values along with business strategies, especially within the corporate/capitalist environment?”
Nia Evans responded that a participatory process is essential to building values. True decision-making power in communities is critical, moving away from communities being “acted on” by decisions with other people’s agendas happening to them, rather than enacting their own agendas. Another way to operationalize values is “giving people something to do” in the sense of creating opportunities for people to act, especially in terms of investment. There are so many opportunities for communities to talk about problems, less opportunities to talk about solutions, and even less opportunities to take action.
Finally, Alex Papali, Director of Regional Economies for the Center for Economic Democracy, spoke about what Northeastern and similar institutions could do to address and make reparations for an unfortunate history of contributing to racial injustice and other systemic economic harm. Papali noted that Northeastern should take an honest look at its flawed history, specifically in Roxbury, by engaging the student body in events and through curricula that communicates this history. Additionally, Northeastern could spearhead an effort to pull various anchor institutions together to provide procurement fulfillment opportunities at a scale that allows Boston’s environmental justice communities to create an economic base and help close the racial wealth gap. Northeastern could also contribute technical assistance and funding for start-up capital to local worker-owned businesses. Northeastern could also reserve seats for students from environmental justice communities to receive a full education. Northeastern can also offer up their spaces and/or infrastructure for local grassroots organizations to provide them with stability so they can engage in conversations and continue their important work. Papali concluded his remarks by sharing his organization’s Social Movement Investing paper that acts as a guide for how to thoughtfully make investment decisions in communities that have been historically marginalized and harmed.
The presentation was followed by a Q & A session.